Thai Elections Offer Little Hope of Border Peace

When the World Heritage Committee put the 11th-century temple of Preah Vihear on its coveted list in July 2008, Thailand backed Cambodia’s bid in a move hinting at rapprochement over the centerpiece of an age-old tug of war.

In Bangkok, the government was a patchwork of parties loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist former premier and telecoms tycoon on the run from a 2006 corruption conviction.

But a Thai court soon found the government’s support unconstitutional, forcing the foreign affairs minister to step down. Over the following months, rising tensions around the border-hugging temple boiled over into a deadly firefight, and another court order in Bangkok finally brought the whole government crashing down, clearing the way for a new coalition cobbled together in a murky backroom deal.

The temple has been a tinderbox of nationalist fervor ever since. Sporadic clashes around the site have killed more soldiers and driven thousands of civilians from their homes.

So polls showing the opposition’s pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party leading the way ahead of Thailand’s national elections Sunday should be welcome news in Phnom Penh, which has had warm relations with the former Thai premier. In 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed Mr Thak­sin to a brief stint as his economic adviser, though the move seemed to have less to do with boosting Cambodia’s GDP than thumbing his nose at the new regime in Bangkok.

But hopes look thin that this election will restore much calm to the majestic cliff-top sanctuary any time soon.

With neither the ruling Democrat Party nor the Puea Thai likely to win a majority, analysts and observers expect little to change along the Thai-Cambodian border come Sunday. If the election bears any hope of bringing even a modest dose of peace to the temple, it may ironically lie with the current regime.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said a Puea Thai victory would send the military and royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy back on the attack.

“If the Democrats return, we will see some of the same old problems: Hun Sen will not be happy with [Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva]. But the military and the PAD may become quieter since their proxy, Abhisit, is now back firmly in power,” he said. “But if the Puea Thai can form the next government, I think the military and the PAD will try to politicize the Cambodian issue in order to discredit and delegitimize the Puea Thai.”

Politicizing could be the least of it.

A military coup toppled Thaksin’s government on charges of corruption and disloyalty to the monarchy in 2006. The “question of the year,” as one analyst put it, was whether the same fate would befall his second coming: Puea Thai front-runner and Thaksin’s youngest sisters, Yingluck Shinawatra. If the bloodline leaves any doubts about the party’s loyalties, there’s its less-than-subtle motto: “Thaksin thinks. Puea Thai does.”

The run-up to Sunday’s elections has defied some expectations in avoiding violence last year’s deadly street battles in Bangkok, even though the government crackdown on pro-Thaksin protesters has taken took center stage in the campaigning. But observers said the chances of another military coup will rise sharply if Puea Thai makes good on the polls.

Jacob Ramsay, a Southeast Asia analyst for the consultancy Control Risks, said the military will weigh any move against the new government carefully.

“I don’t think they will immediately launch into a coup,” he said. But if a Puea Thai government starts pushing ahead on more sensitive issues, like the Thai-Cambodian border, he said a repeat of 2006 was “more than likely.”

“Recalling its last unhappy spell in power after its coup in 2006, the military will seek to avoid ruling directly again,” said William Case, director of Asian and International Studies at Hong Kong’s City University.

“It will thus wait to see what kind of government the elections produce, how amenable that government is to military pressures, and whether, if necessary, the judiciary can again be deployed. Only if the military then gains no sway and its corporate and class interests are jeopardized would it then contemplate directly reclaiming executive power.”

Roberto Herrera-Lim, an Asia analyst for the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, agreed that a Puea Thai government would face its first challenge from the courts.

“Military will want [a coup]. But not too sure if the mainstream politicians think it can be justified again,” he said. “My gut sense is that any Thaksin-led government will be attacked through judicial action.”

It already has. Last week the opposition’s opponents filed a petition with Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation asking it to charge Ms Yingluck with perjury for allegedly lying about her brother’s assets.

All that leaves little room for a Puea Thai government to mend border relations with Cambodia even if it avoids a coup.

“It’s much more likely that Puea Thai would try to move to resolve the border dispute since they don’t really care whether the PAD condemns them since they know they are not getting any support from the PAD anyway,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US.

“That said, the Thai military might not allow any resolution of the dispute no matter what Puea Thai does or says.”

If either party could get away with trying to cool off a tightly wound border, Mr Pavin of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies said, it would be the Democrats.

Observers mostly blame the latest border clashes, two since February, on election-year politicking in Thailand. So if the Democrats return to power, Mr Pavin said, “then we may see the rapprochement between Thailand and Cambodia. From a Thai perspective, there would be no more reason to politicize the issue.”

But even he doubts a second Democrat-led government would stray far from the wishes of its military patrons or its nationalist, “yellow shirt” base.

“I don’t know [how] much concession Thailand could make,” he said. “Giving [Cambodia] too much may drive the yellows on the street. Giving it too little may not change the situation.”

Still embittered by a 1962 UN court ruling that awarded Preah Vihear to Cambodia, the yellow-clad PAD made some of the loudest noise when the temple landed on the World Heritage List in 2008. Mr Abhisit’s efforts to distance himself from the group may have radicalized them further, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said in an online editorial for The Asian Century last month.

Feeling betrayed, he said, “the PAD’s yellow-clad supporters returned to the streets, this time under the banner of ultra-nationalism over Preah Vihear and a domestic anti-corruption campaign. The PAD has openly called for a military coup to clean up Thai politics.”

And while it is not the political force it once was, it may still prove too powerful for Mr Abhisit to ignore.

“As long as the PAD shares the same concerns as the army, the PAD will have a real influence over the Democrat Party,” said historian Raoul Marc Jennar.

So the Democrats may be left with little more room than the Puea Thai to make the concessions a lasting peace will likely need–namely, respect for the colonial-era border map that puts both the temple and the disputed land around it inside Cambodia.

As for Cambodia, some speculate that the border clashes have given Mr Hun Sen a chance to play up his own nationalist credentials and maybe those of his son, RCAF Major General Hun Manet, or to draw attention away from Cambodia’s own domestic troubles. But mostly they say the premier genuinely wants peace at the border–and out of Thai politics.

“He wants to see investments and tourists increasing. He wants to show to the world that Cambodia is at peace, dedicated to reconstruction and development,” said Mr Jennar, who has worked as an advisor to the Cambodian government. “He doesn’t need nationalist statements to get support from the population. He rules the country with a huge and stable parliamentary majority…and elections [for Cambodia’s Parliament] are two years away.”

So while Sunday will bring an end weeks of bitter campaigning in Thailand, observers said it will not bridge the deep social and political rifts in Thailand ultimately driving the border dispute.

“If the Democrats or the [Puea] Thai Party doesn’t reach the possibility to rule alone, nothing will change. We are back to square one,” Mr Jennar said.

In other words, analysts see little chance of peace at the border until Thailand comes to peace with itself.

“For the Next couple of years the border issue will become a convenient nationalist issue to be used whenever necessary,” said Eurasia Group’s Mr Herrera-Lim. “Given the fragile nature of governance in Thailand for at least the next couple years, I would say there is a high chance that there will be no real resolution of the border issue and it will become a source of tension when convenient to the Thai government.”

 

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